Flaws Seen in Campus Policies Replacing Affirmative Action

By JACQUES STEINBERG
New York Times
February 13, 2003

The admissions policies that have replaced affirmative action at public universities in Texas, Florida and California in recent years have failed to create freshman classes as diverse as their predecessors or their state populations, according to two reports released yesterday by researchers at Harvard University.

The programs, which extend automatic offers of admission to a set percentage of students from each high school in each state, have posted some gains — like a slight increase in Hispanic applicants to the University of Texas — but usually only in instances where students at high schools with heavy minority concentrations were selected for recruitment, the reports found.

The researchers, writing on behalf of a joint project of Harvard's law school and graduate school of education, conclude that by recruiting at high schools where minorities make up the majority, the states of Texas and Florida in particular were not meeting their own goals of achieving diversity without giving additional attention to minority applicants.

"Affirmative action is a modest and effective tool that universities need," wrote Gary Orfield, who oversaw the research as co-director of the Civil Rights Project at Harvard, "and it is simply wrong to suggest that we have found any kind of simple nonracial alternative."

The Harvard findings are likely to be injected into the pitched, complex debate over affirmative action that has been centered, most recently, on the Supreme Court's coming consideration of the race-conscious admission policies at the University of Michigan.

Last month, President Bush expressed his opposition to the Michigan program and cited plans like those in Texas and Florida as more appropriate alternatives.

The plans of all three states depend, in part, on the segregation of many high schools. By accepting the top percentage of students at each high school — 4 percent in California, 10 percent in Texas, 20 percent in Florida — the states virtually guarantee some degree of diversity within the overall higher education system.

The reports cite the Texas experiment as perhaps the most progressive. Unlike the other two states, students accepted into the Texas system may choose which campus they attend.

At the flagship campus of the University of Texas in Austin, for example, the percentage of students in the freshman class who are Hispanic was 13.4 percent in 2001, compared with 12.2 percent in 1997, the year after a federal court barred state universities in Texas from practicing affirmative action.

But that figure is well short of meeting the state's goal of having the higher education system mirror the diversity of the state population as a whole, where nearly one of every three is Hispanic. And the state's other flagship campus, Texas A&M, remains far less diverse than Austin.

Ray Grasshoff, a spokesman for the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, said that the state recognized it needed to do better, and that it had already begun additional efforts — like a financial aid plan for the state's poorest students — that were expected to further diversify the freshman class at Austin and elsewhere.

The reports' most withering criticism was directed at Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida, who has hailed his "Talented 20" percent program as a national, race-neutral alternative to affirmative action. The researchers concluded that the effect of the plan "was virtually irrelevant."

Of the 21,989 high school students deemed eligible for admission to the state's universities in 2001, only 177 — or fewer than 1 percent — would not have been eligible before the plan was adopted, the researchers said.

In a statement, Governor Bush dismissed the Harvard report as "sterile and shallow data analysis" that failed to laud the state for "reaching out to more minority students than ever before."